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无人驾驶船将首次横渡大西洋,重走“五月花号”路线

无人驾驶船将首次横渡大西洋,重走“五月花号”路线

Jeremy Kahn 2021年12月01日
ProMare一直致力于打造一款通过油电混合发动机和太阳能电池板供能的无人驾驶船舶,希望其能够像过往的清教徒一样,从英格兰普利茅斯横渡大西洋抵达美国马塞诸塞州普利茅斯。

布雷特·法纳夫是一位健谈的美国中年企业家,今年感恩节前几天,他在位于英国普利茅斯的一家咖啡馆里对“五月花号”(The Mayflower)的航程和人们风险认知的变化发表了自己的看法。这家咖啡馆距离1620年9月清教徒登上“五月花号”的地点没有多远。

“当这些人踏上征途的时候,不仅没有人能够保证航行成功,甚至没有人可以保证他们能够活下来,但为了走向新世界,他们还是义无反顾的接受了这种巨大的风险,这一点让我感到备受鼓舞。”法纳夫说。

现在,法纳夫打算追随前人的脚步,踏上属于自己的征程。

过去五年,法纳夫领导的非营利机构——ProMare一直致力于打造一款通过油电混合发动机和太阳能电池板供能的无人驾驶船舶,希望其可以像过往的清教徒一样,从英格兰普利茅斯横渡大西洋抵达美国马塞诸塞州普利茅斯。如果成功,这艘以著名航海先驱“五月花号”命名的“五月花号自动驾驶船舶”(The Mayflower Autonomous Ship,简称“MAS”)就将成为第一艘横渡大西洋的无人船舶。

在计划重现“五月花号”冒险横渡大西洋的场景之时,法纳夫发现,当前的文化对于“风险规避”的执着已经到了不合逻辑的地步。他说:“就整体社会而言,我们真的已经完全丧失了思考风险的能力。”他表示,在涉及人工智能等新技术的监管时,尤其如此,并称“这就是对自动化和自主化的偏见。”

同时,法纳夫认为,当前水面上最大的危险其实是那些缺乏经验的游船爱好者。

“但却没有人说要把他们给禁了。”他说。

自动驾驶船舶的发展前景

按照设想,法纳夫的现代版“五月花号”将扮演试验平台的角色,测试船舶实现自动驾驶所需的各种技术。预计到2030年年末,在集装箱运输、研究和军事等领域,此类船舶的市场规模将超过1600亿美元。

法纳夫出生于波士顿地区,十年前到英国工作,长期以来,他一直在与美、英两国的监管机构就“由人工智能软件控制的船舶应该遵守何种规则”进行讨论。法纳夫经营的一家名为Marine AI的公司就在开发此类软件。另外两家由他领导的公司M Subs Ltd.和Submergence Group则负责制造供美、英两国海军使用载人潜水器和无人潜水器。在他看来,由人工智能操控的无人船舶的风险要远小于人类驾驶的船舶。但他也表示,大多数监管机构并不认同他的观点。

船队无人化有助于缓解未来的供应链中断问题,更不用说还能够为航运业节省数以百万美元计的人工成本。在此背景下,马士基(Maersk)、赫伯罗特(Happag-Lloyd)等诸多航运业巨头纷纷携手软件、机器人初创公司,合作探索无人船舶的制造也就不足为奇了。作为船舶发动机的主要制造商之一,劳斯莱斯(Rolls-Royce)也在大力开发人工智能船舶。一艘名为“MV Yara Birkeland”的挪威无人集装箱船从今年11月开始在奥斯陆郊外峡湾进行测试。日本最大的航运公司日本邮船(Nippon Yusen)计划于明年2月派遣一艘无人集装箱船从东京湾前往伊势市,进行一趟全长236英里的沿海航行。

但就距离和冒险程度而言,目前大型航运企业提出的方案都无法与法纳夫为MAS制定的计划相提并论。为纪念“五月花号”出航400周年,这艘49英尺长(约14.9352米)的铝制三体船本应在2020年完成自己的跨大西洋航行,但受新冠疫情影响,该船未能及时完工。直到今年6月,MAS才终于踏上了从英国普利茅斯前往美国的旅程。这趟航行预计需要花费三周时间。但在出海三天之后,由于排气管破裂,混动发电机无法正常运转,MAS被迫借助备用电源艰难驶回临近英吉利海峡西部的锡利岛,之后,被ProMare团队用拖车拖回了普利茅斯。

“船舶故障在所难免,我们的船也不例外,但这是船的问题,而不是人工智能部件的问题。”法纳夫耸肩说道。

法纳夫不是一位轻言放弃的人。“我们不能因为一次挫折就否定整个项目。”他说。毕竟,“五月花号”在完成66天横渡大西洋的壮举之前,也曾经被迫掉头返修,而且还是两次。于是,法纳夫重新设计了船舶的发动机,Promare则对船上搭载的大部分软件进行了升级。截至目前,MAS已经花费Promare约120万美元,众多合作企业也为其提供了更多设备、付出了大量劳力。按照计划,该团队将于明年春季再次尝试横渡大西洋。但首先,这艘正在普利茅斯附近水域进行广泛测试船只还将进行一场距离更远的试航——直接驶往鹿特丹,按照计划,MAS将于明年2月重返普利茅斯。

前途光明

从理论上讲,相较于制造无人驾驶汽车,建造无人船舶应当更为容易。即便是繁忙的航道,大洋也不会像大多数城市道路或高速公路那样拥挤。在谈到MAS的首次横渡尝试时,法纳夫说:“上一次,我们驶出了500英里的距离,没有一艘船曾经出现在我们10英里以内的地方。”除进出港口时外,船舶航行相较汽车通常更为自由。此外,在大多数情况下,船舶的航行速度也比汽车慢得多,这就意味着人工智能系统将有更多的时间来识别潜在危险,进而采取机动措施来规避危险。

不过唐·斯科特认为,无人船舶也面临着一些独特的挑战,比如训练人工智能系统识别浮标、航道标志、船舶和蟹笼、浮木等漂浮于水面上的各种物体就颇为不易,再考虑到船舶经常要在巨浪中颠簸,还要经受雨雾天气的洗礼,要拿出稳定表现更是难上加难。斯科特是一位身材高大、满脸胡须的加拿大人,也是MarineAI公司的首席技术官,负责监督MAS上的软件系统开发工作。为了解决上述问题,斯科特开发了一个标签化的数据库,其中包含数百万张各种海洋物体在不同光线和天气条件下的图像。为记录相关活动、为MAS的人工智能系统创建一套训练数据,他在普利茅斯港周围各处安装了许多摄像头和传感器。

图片来源:Photo courtesy of IBM

MAS现在仍然静静地停靠在普利茅斯的码头边,造型令人印象深刻:主船体和舷外支架均设有反向船艏,能够提高切浪效率,同时也让整个船体看起来更具科幻感。主船体中部是由四根支柱撑起来的中央平台,天线、雷达、传感器和摄像头均布局其上,极为抢眼。

在船体上一眼就可以看到IBM的标志——IBM很早就对这个项目产生了兴趣,也是ProMare的主要技术合作伙伴。借助IBM提供的软件,MAS能够“看到”周围的物体,并在既定航道上出现其他船舶时及时调整航向。这套决策系统是IBM基于其为银行和保险公司提供的软件开发而来。IBM还为MAS提供了许多可以运行人工智能软件的计算机,省去了船舶与岸上数据中心来回传输信息的麻烦。对MAS而言,能够在不消耗太多船上有限电力的情况下“就地处理”这些计算需求可以说是一项“基本要求”。(因为在航行途中,)MAS可能需要快速进行航行决策,而在大洋之中,蜂窝通信网络显然鞭长莫及,卫星连接也可能无法提供足够的网速和带宽,甚至可能完全没有信号。

船上还备有一些能够收集科学数据的计算机。相较于载人科考船队,无人船舶可以在海上停留更长时间,成本也低出许多;相较于传感器浮标,无人船舶自身配有推进系统,能够自主航行,可以覆盖更大的地理区域,因此,法纳夫认为,无人船舶将能够帮助人类增进对海洋的认识,这也是其一大优势。

IBM的研究人员设计了三个科研项目,交由MAS在横渡大西洋时执行。其一是“水听器”,用于持续聆听水下声音,并将数据提供给经过训练的软件,识别鲸歌。其二是“超级味觉”(Hypertaste),这是一种“电子舌头”传感器,每隔15分钟会对MAS周围的水体进行一次采样并分析其中的化学成分。相关数据将会用于对海洋酸化进行研究,而海洋酸化又与气候变化有关,在气候变化的过程中,随着大气中二氧化碳含量的增加,海洋也会吸收越来越多的二氧化碳,导致其酸性越来越强。其三是研究人员会利用船上摄像机拍摄的视频,结合船上惯性传感器的数据,对人工智能系统进行训练,使其可以根据海浪的外形来预测海浪所携带的能量。也许有一天,此项研究将会帮助科学家们更好地利用视频来了解发生风暴和侵蚀的可能性,同时也将帮助未来的人类在穿越大洋时找到最安全、最高效的航线。

在其他方面,IBM也有贡献,该公司旗下的The Weather Company负责向MAS传输气象数据,帮助后者确定横渡大西洋的最佳路线。(作为回报,MAS也会将船上传感器收集到的天气数据回传给岸上的研究人员。)The Weather Company的气象预报人员也会和ProMare沟通,帮助后者找到最佳的天气窗口,从而最大限度地提高MAS横渡成功的概率。

试航

这是一个寒气逼人,但风平浪静、阳光明媚的午后,斯科特和我登上了普利茅斯港的一艘小型游艇,旁边停着的就是MAS,二者之间由一条绳索相连。作为MAS项目的总工程师,24岁的马特·肖正坐在驾驶室中,他打开笔记本电脑,点开一个显示着MAS上各种仪器读数的数字仪表盘,直接用Xbox手柄和蓝牙网络开始了远程操作。与此同时,MAS从我们面前平稳驶过,绳索也在阳光的照射下闪耀着金光。谨慎起见,当地官员要求MAS在进出港口时必须有人控制,并且需要与一艘载人的船舶连接在一起。

图片来源:Photo courtesy of IBM

到达港口入口之外的考桑湾(Cawsand Bay)指定测试区域后,我们就解开了绳索,只看马特敲击了一下键盘,MAS就像脱缰的野马一样,以6.8节(约每小时8英里)的速度在预先设定的航点之间开始了自由航行。“以这个速度航行时,MAS的能效比最高。”马特介绍说。与此同时,作为MAS上各项科学实验的负责人之一,IBM研究中心的软件工程师詹姆斯·萨顿则坐在一旁,通过膝盖上放着的笔记本电脑查看MAS上各种科学仪器的读数。

游艇先是在MAS旁伴行,随后超到MAS前方,穿过了MAS的航线。斯科特说:“我们这么做是为了确保传感器能够正常看到我们,同时确保防撞软件可以正常工作。”由于有关部门实际上并不允许MAS在距离海岸这么近的地方完全自主行动,所以MAS不会偏离既定航线。但在岸上码头边的一座低矮红砖建筑里,ProMare的其他员工能够实时监控MAS摄像头拍到的内容和雷达数据,还可以看到在自主操作的情况下,MAS的“人工智能船长”会做出何种决定来避免发生碰撞。他们用无线电通知马特一切正常。“这就是海上的真实情况,什么问题都没有。”斯科特说。

政府海事机构的谨慎让法纳夫愤愤不已,在他看来这毫无必要。他说:“正是这种夸张的安全文化为非理性监管提供了理由,这种行为最终将会阻碍行业的发展。”虽然西渡的清教徒一路遭受了许多苦难,但至少没有遭受过度海事监管的折磨。(财富中文网)

译者:梁宇

审校:夏林

布雷特·法纳夫是一位健谈的美国中年企业家,今年感恩节前几天,他在位于英国普利茅斯的一家咖啡馆里对“五月花号”(The Mayflower)的航程和人们风险认知的变化发表了自己的看法。这家咖啡馆距离1620年9月清教徒登上“五月花号”的地点没有多远。

“当这些人踏上征途的时候,不仅没有人能够保证航行成功,甚至没有人可以保证他们能够活下来,但为了走向新世界,他们还是义无反顾的接受了这种巨大的风险,这一点让我感到备受鼓舞。”法纳夫说。

现在,法纳夫打算追随前人的脚步,踏上属于自己的征程。

过去五年,法纳夫领导的非营利机构——ProMare一直致力于打造一款通过油电混合发动机和太阳能电池板供能的无人驾驶船舶,希望其可以像过往的清教徒一样,从英格兰普利茅斯横渡大西洋抵达美国马塞诸塞州普利茅斯。如果成功,这艘以著名航海先驱“五月花号”命名的“五月花号自动驾驶船舶”(The Mayflower Autonomous Ship,简称“MAS”)就将成为第一艘横渡大西洋的无人船舶。

在计划重现“五月花号”冒险横渡大西洋的场景之时,法纳夫发现,当前的文化对于“风险规避”的执着已经到了不合逻辑的地步。他说:“就整体社会而言,我们真的已经完全丧失了思考风险的能力。”他表示,在涉及人工智能等新技术的监管时,尤其如此,并称“这就是对自动化和自主化的偏见。”

同时,法纳夫认为,当前水面上最大的危险其实是那些缺乏经验的游船爱好者。

“但却没有人说要把他们给禁了。”他说。

自动驾驶船舶的发展前景

按照设想,法纳夫的现代版“五月花号”将扮演试验平台的角色,测试船舶实现自动驾驶所需的各种技术。预计到2030年年末,在集装箱运输、研究和军事等领域,此类船舶的市场规模将超过1600亿美元。

法纳夫出生于波士顿地区,十年前到英国工作,长期以来,他一直在与美、英两国的监管机构就“由人工智能软件控制的船舶应该遵守何种规则”进行讨论。法纳夫经营的一家名为Marine AI的公司就在开发此类软件。另外两家由他领导的公司M Subs Ltd.和Submergence Group则负责制造供美、英两国海军使用载人潜水器和无人潜水器。在他看来,由人工智能操控的无人船舶的风险要远小于人类驾驶的船舶。但他也表示,大多数监管机构并不认同他的观点。

船队无人化有助于缓解未来的供应链中断问题,更不用说还能够为航运业节省数以百万美元计的人工成本。在此背景下,马士基(Maersk)、赫伯罗特(Happag-Lloyd)等诸多航运业巨头纷纷携手软件、机器人初创公司,合作探索无人船舶的制造也就不足为奇了。作为船舶发动机的主要制造商之一,劳斯莱斯(Rolls-Royce)也在大力开发人工智能船舶。一艘名为“MV Yara Birkeland”的挪威无人集装箱船从今年11月开始在奥斯陆郊外峡湾进行测试。日本最大的航运公司日本邮船(Nippon Yusen)计划于明年2月派遣一艘无人集装箱船从东京湾前往伊势市,进行一趟全长236英里的沿海航行。

但就距离和冒险程度而言,目前大型航运企业提出的方案都无法与法纳夫为MAS制定的计划相提并论。为纪念“五月花号”出航400周年,这艘49英尺长(约14.9352米)的铝制三体船本应在2020年完成自己的跨大西洋航行,但受新冠疫情影响,该船未能及时完工。直到今年6月,MAS才终于踏上了从英国普利茅斯前往美国的旅程。这趟航行预计需要花费三周时间。但在出海三天之后,由于排气管破裂,混动发电机无法正常运转,MAS被迫借助备用电源艰难驶回临近英吉利海峡西部的锡利岛,之后,被ProMare团队用拖车拖回了普利茅斯。

“船舶故障在所难免,我们的船也不例外,但这是船的问题,而不是人工智能部件的问题。”法纳夫耸肩说道。

法纳夫不是一位轻言放弃的人。“我们不能因为一次挫折就否定整个项目。”他说。毕竟,“五月花号”在完成66天横渡大西洋的壮举之前,也曾经被迫掉头返修,而且还是两次。于是,法纳夫重新设计了船舶的发动机,Promare则对船上搭载的大部分软件进行了升级。截至目前,MAS已经花费Promare约120万美元,众多合作企业也为其提供了更多设备、付出了大量劳力。按照计划,该团队将于明年春季再次尝试横渡大西洋。但首先,这艘正在普利茅斯附近水域进行广泛测试船只还将进行一场距离更远的试航——直接驶往鹿特丹,按照计划,MAS将于明年2月重返普利茅斯。

前途光明

从理论上讲,相较于制造无人驾驶汽车,建造无人船舶应当更为容易。即便是繁忙的航道,大洋也不会像大多数城市道路或高速公路那样拥挤。在谈到MAS的首次横渡尝试时,法纳夫说:“上一次,我们驶出了500英里的距离,没有一艘船曾经出现在我们10英里以内的地方。”除进出港口时外,船舶航行相较汽车通常更为自由。此外,在大多数情况下,船舶的航行速度也比汽车慢得多,这就意味着人工智能系统将有更多的时间来识别潜在危险,进而采取机动措施来规避危险。

不过唐·斯科特认为,无人船舶也面临着一些独特的挑战,比如训练人工智能系统识别浮标、航道标志、船舶和蟹笼、浮木等漂浮于水面上的各种物体就颇为不易,再考虑到船舶经常要在巨浪中颠簸,还要经受雨雾天气的洗礼,要拿出稳定表现更是难上加难。斯科特是一位身材高大、满脸胡须的加拿大人,也是MarineAI公司的首席技术官,负责监督MAS上的软件系统开发工作。为了解决上述问题,斯科特开发了一个标签化的数据库,其中包含数百万张各种海洋物体在不同光线和天气条件下的图像。为记录相关活动、为MAS的人工智能系统创建一套训练数据,他在普利茅斯港周围各处安装了许多摄像头和传感器。

MAS现在仍然静静地停靠在普利茅斯的码头边,造型令人印象深刻:主船体和舷外支架均设有反向船艏,能够提高切浪效率,同时也让整个船体看起来更具科幻感。主船体中部是由四根支柱撑起来的中央平台,天线、雷达、传感器和摄像头均布局其上,极为抢眼。

在船体上一眼就可以看到IBM的标志——IBM很早就对这个项目产生了兴趣,也是ProMare的主要技术合作伙伴。借助IBM提供的软件,MAS能够“看到”周围的物体,并在既定航道上出现其他船舶时及时调整航向。这套决策系统是IBM基于其为银行和保险公司提供的软件开发而来。IBM还为MAS提供了许多可以运行人工智能软件的计算机,省去了船舶与岸上数据中心来回传输信息的麻烦。对MAS而言,能够在不消耗太多船上有限电力的情况下“就地处理”这些计算需求可以说是一项“基本要求”。(因为在航行途中,)MAS可能需要快速进行航行决策,而在大洋之中,蜂窝通信网络显然鞭长莫及,卫星连接也可能无法提供足够的网速和带宽,甚至可能完全没有信号。

船上还备有一些能够收集科学数据的计算机。相较于载人科考船队,无人船舶可以在海上停留更长时间,成本也低出许多;相较于传感器浮标,无人船舶自身配有推进系统,能够自主航行,可以覆盖更大的地理区域,因此,法纳夫认为,无人船舶将能够帮助人类增进对海洋的认识,这也是其一大优势。

IBM的研究人员设计了三个科研项目,交由MAS在横渡大西洋时执行。其一是“水听器”,用于持续聆听水下声音,并将数据提供给经过训练的软件,识别鲸歌。其二是“超级味觉”(Hypertaste),这是一种“电子舌头”传感器,每隔15分钟会对MAS周围的水体进行一次采样并分析其中的化学成分。相关数据将会用于对海洋酸化进行研究,而海洋酸化又与气候变化有关,在气候变化的过程中,随着大气中二氧化碳含量的增加,海洋也会吸收越来越多的二氧化碳,导致其酸性越来越强。其三是研究人员会利用船上摄像机拍摄的视频,结合船上惯性传感器的数据,对人工智能系统进行训练,使其可以根据海浪的外形来预测海浪所携带的能量。也许有一天,此项研究将会帮助科学家们更好地利用视频来了解发生风暴和侵蚀的可能性,同时也将帮助未来的人类在穿越大洋时找到最安全、最高效的航线。

在其他方面,IBM也有贡献,该公司旗下的The Weather Company负责向MAS传输气象数据,帮助后者确定横渡大西洋的最佳路线。(作为回报,MAS也会将船上传感器收集到的天气数据回传给岸上的研究人员。)The Weather Company的气象预报人员也会和ProMare沟通,帮助后者找到最佳的天气窗口,从而最大限度地提高MAS横渡成功的概率。

试航

这是一个寒气逼人,但风平浪静、阳光明媚的午后,斯科特和我登上了普利茅斯港的一艘小型游艇,旁边停着的就是MAS,二者之间由一条绳索相连。作为MAS项目的总工程师,24岁的马特·肖正坐在驾驶室中,他打开笔记本电脑,点开一个显示着MAS上各种仪器读数的数字仪表盘,直接用Xbox手柄和蓝牙网络开始了远程操作。与此同时,MAS从我们面前平稳驶过,绳索也在阳光的照射下闪耀着金光。谨慎起见,当地官员要求MAS在进出港口时必须有人控制,并且需要与一艘载人的船舶连接在一起。

到达港口入口之外的考桑湾(Cawsand Bay)指定测试区域后,我们就解开了绳索,只看马特敲击了一下键盘,MAS就像脱缰的野马一样,以6.8节(约每小时8英里)的速度在预先设定的航点之间开始了自由航行。“以这个速度航行时,MAS的能效比最高。”马特介绍说。与此同时,作为MAS上各项科学实验的负责人之一,IBM研究中心的软件工程师詹姆斯·萨顿则坐在一旁,通过膝盖上放着的笔记本电脑查看MAS上各种科学仪器的读数。

游艇先是在MAS旁伴行,随后超到MAS前方,穿过了MAS的航线。斯科特说:“我们这么做是为了确保传感器能够正常看到我们,同时确保防撞软件可以正常工作。”由于有关部门实际上并不允许MAS在距离海岸这么近的地方完全自主行动,所以MAS不会偏离既定航线。但在岸上码头边的一座低矮红砖建筑里,ProMare的其他员工能够实时监控MAS摄像头拍到的内容和雷达数据,还可以看到在自主操作的情况下,MAS的“人工智能船长”会做出何种决定来避免发生碰撞。他们用无线电通知马特一切正常。“这就是海上的真实情况,什么问题都没有。”斯科特说。

政府海事机构的谨慎让法纳夫愤愤不已,在他看来这毫无必要。他说:“正是这种夸张的安全文化为非理性监管提供了理由,这种行为最终将会阻碍行业的发展。”虽然西渡的清教徒一路遭受了许多苦难,但至少没有遭受过度海事监管的折磨。(财富中文网)

译者:梁宇

审校:夏林

Just days before Thanksgiving, Brett Phaneuf, a voluble middle-aged American entrepreneur, sat in a café in Plymouth, England, not far from the spot where the Pilgrims embarked on The Mayflower in September 1620, and talked about their voyage and changing perceptions of risk.

“What I find inspirational, is that these people were willing to take such an incredible risk to sort of jump off into something new, with not just no guarantee of success, but, like, no guarantee of survival,” Phaneuf says.

Now Phaneuf plans to follow them—in a sense.

For the past five years, a non-profit Phaneuf heads, ProMare, has been building an unmanned autonomous ship, powered by a hybrid diesel-electric motor and solar panels, which it hopes will follow in the Pilgrims’ wake, crossing the Atlantic from Plymouth, England, to Plymouth, Massachusetts. If successful, The Mayflower Autonomous Ship, named in honor of its famous nautical forebearer and known as MAS for short, will be the first such trans-Atlantic voyage by an autonomous vessel.

As he plans to recreate the pilgrims' risky crossing, Phaneuf finds today’s culture illogically risk-adverse. “As a society, we really simply have completely lost the ability to think about risk,” he says. This is particularly true, he says, when it comes to the regulation of new technology, such as artificial intelligence. “There’s just this bias against automation and autonomy,” he said.

Meanwhile, says Phaneuf, the biggest hazards on the water today are inexperienced pleasure boaters.

“But no one talks about banning them,” he said.

The promise of autonomous ships

Phaneuf's modern Mayflower was envisioned as a testbed for the technology needed to make autonomous ships viable. The market for such vessels, for container transport, research and military applications, is expected to reach more than $160 billion by the end of the decade.

Phaneuf, a Boston-area native who moved to Britain a decade ago for work, has been in discussions with regulators in both the U.S. and the U.K. about what rules should govern ships piloted by artificial intelligence software. One company Phaneuf runs, Marine AI, makes such software. Two other companies he also heads, M Subs Ltd. and The Submergence Group, build manned and unmanned submersibles for use by the U.S. and British Navy. In his view, uncrewed ships captained by A.I. pose far less risk than those helmed by human skippers—but most regulators don’t see it that way, he says.

Dispensing with crews could help ease future supply chain disruptions, not to mention saving the shipping industry millions in labor costs. So it’s not surprising that a number of maritime industry giants, including Maersk and Happag-Lloyd, have been teaming up with software and robotics startups to explore the creation of autonomous ships. Rolls-Royce, a major producer of ships’ engines, is making a big push to develop A.I.-captained vessels too. A Norwegian autonomous container ship, MV Yara Birkeland, began testing in the fjord outside Oslo in November. And Japan’s largest shipping company, Nippon Yusen, plans to send a captainless containership on a 236-mile coastal voyage from Tokyo Bay to the Japanese city of Ise in February.

But so far, none of big league shipping companies has proposed a journey as lengthy and audacious as what Phaneuf has planned for MAS. The 49-foot long, aluminum trimaran was supposed to have made its trans-Atlantic voyage to commemorate the 400th Anniversary of the Pilgrims’ journey, in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the vessel’s completion. In June this year, MAS belatedly embarked from Plymouth bound for America. The journey was expected to take about three weeks. But, after three days at sea, an exhaust pipe broke, preventing the hybrid electric generator from operating. MAS was forced to limp back under reserve power to the Isles of Scilly, which lie just west of the English Channel, and then the ProMare team towed her home to Plymouth.

“Boats always break, so our boat broke—but not the A.I. part,” Phaneuf shrugged.

Phaneuf isn’t one to give up easily. “One setback doesn’t define the whole project,” he said. After all, the original Mayflower also had to turn around—twice—for repairs before it eventually completed its 66-day Atlantic crossing. So Phaneuf redesigned the ship’s engine, Promare upgraded much of the boat’s software for good measure, and the group is planning another attempt to cross The Atlantic this spring. But first, the boat—which has cost Promare about $1.2 million so far, with a variety of corporate partners donating more in equipment and labor—is undergoing extensive testing in the waters near Plymouth, with a longer shake-down cruise to Rotterdam and back planned for February.

It should be easy

In theory, building an autonomous ship ought to be easier than creating a self-driving car. Even in busy shipping lanes, the oceans are less congested than most city roads or highways. “Last time, we travelled 500 miles offshore and we never came within 10 miles of another vessel,” Phaneuf said of MAS’s maiden crossing attempt. Except when coming in and out of port, ships generally have a lot of more freedom to navigate than cars do. Also, in most cases, ships travel much more slowly than cars, meaning there is a lot more time for A.I.-systems to identify potential hazards and maneuver to avoid them.

But training an A.I. system to identify buoys, channel markers, boats and all sorts of other things that float in the sea, from crab pots to logs—and to do so reliably in rain or fog while the ship is also pitching in heavy swells—that is a bit of a trick, says Don Scott, the tall, bearded Canadian, who is the chief technology officer at MarineAI and who oversaw the development of the software systems deployed on MAS. To do so, Scott developed a labelled database of millions of images of marine objects in different light and weather conditions. He installed cameras and sensors at various points around Plymouth Harbor to record activity and create a set of training data for MAS's A.I.

Sitting still alongside the pier in Plymouth, MAS cuts an impressive figure: its main hull and outriggers have reverse bows, designed to cut through the waves more efficiently, giving the ship the profile of some exotic spacecraft. A central platform rises on four struts rises from the middle of the main hull, sporting an impressive array of antennas, radars, sensors and cameras.

IBM took an early interest in the project and became ProMare’s principal technology partner, its corporate logo prominently displayed on the ship’s hull. The company provided some of the software the ship uses to “see” objects around it as well as the software the ship uses to decide how to steer when other vessels obstruct its path. This decision-making system was adapted from software IBM first used to help banks and insurance companies. IBM has also provided MAS with computers that can run A.I. software without needing to send information back and forth to on-shore datacenters. Being able to handle these computing demands “on the edge” without consuming too much of MAS’s limited electric power was an essential requirement. MAS may need to be make quick navigational decisions while in the middle of the ocean, beyond the reach of cellular communications and where satellite connectivity can be slow and bandwidth limited, or sometimes nonexistent.

Other computers onboard the ship will be helping to gather scientific data. One of the big advantages of autonomous ships, as Phaneuf sees it, is their ability to advance human understanding of the oceans. An unmanned vessel can remain at sea longer, at a tiny fraction of the cost, of a human-crewed research ship. With its own propulsion and the ability to navigate independently, it can also cover a wider geographic area than a sensor-laden buoy.

IBM researchers have designed three science projects that MAS will conduct while it is crossing the Atlantic. One is a hydrophone that will be used to listen continuously to sounds underwater, feeding the data to software that has been trained to identify whale songs. Another sensor, called Hypertaste, is an “electronic tongue” that will sample the water around MAS at 15 minute intervals, identifying its chemical composition. The data will be used to study ocean acidification, a process, linked to climate change, in which, as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, the oceans also absorbs larger and larger amounts of carbon dioxide, becoming more acidic. Finally, researchers will be using video from the ship’s cameras, combined with data from inertial sensors onboard, to train an A.I. system to predict the energy a wave carries based on its appearance. This might one day help scientists make better use of video to understand the potential for storms and erosion, as well helping future autonomous ships steer the safest, most efficient path, through high seas.

Big Blue has contributed in other ways too. IBM owns The Weather Company, which transmits meteorological data to MAS that it will use to help determine the best route across the Atlantic. (In return, the ship is also relaying weather data from its own sensors back to shore-based researchers.) Weather company forecasters are also consulting with the ProMare team to help them find the best weather window for maximizing MAS’s chance of having a successful crossing.

Test drive

It’s a chilly, but calm and sunny early afternoon as Scott and I step aboard a small cabin cruiser in Plymouth Harbor. We watch as Matt Shaw, the 24-year old who serves as chief engineer on the MAS project, opens a laptop inside the pilot house and pulls up a digital dashboard displaying readouts from MAS’s instruments. Using an Xbox controller and a Bluetooth network, Shaw remotely pilots MAS as she motors placidly in front of us, attached to the cabin cruiser by a slack, day-glow orange line. As a precaution, local officials have mandated that MAS be under human control and tethered to a manned boat while navigating in and out of the harbor.

Once we reach a designated testing area in Cawsand Bay, just outside the harbor entrance, the tether is released, Shaw taps a key on the keyboard and MAS is off, making her own way between preprogrammed waypoints at a speed of 6.8 knots (about eight miles per hour). “This is her optimal speed for fuel consumption efficiency,” Shaw said. Meanwhile, James Sutton, a software engineer from IBM Research who has worked on the science experiments MAS carries, sits with a laptop perched on his knees, watching the readouts from the scientific instruments onboard.

The cruiser motors along next to MAS and then, pulling slightly ahead, crosses her path. “We’re testing to make sure the sensors can correctly see us and that the collision-avoidance software is working properly,” Scott said. The authorities won’t actually let MAS operate fully autonomously this close to shore, so MAS doesn’t deviate from its set course. But back on shore, in a squat redbrick building right alongside the wharf, other ProMare employees can monitor MAS’s camera feeds and radar data in real-time and also see what decision MAS’s A.I. captain would have taken to avoid a collision if it had been operating autonomously. They radio Shaw to tell him everything appears to be working. “This is the reality of being at sea, nothing much happens,” Scott said.

Phaneuf grates at what he sees at the needless caution of government maritime authorities. “It's just this sort of hyperbolic sort of safety culture that is being used to justify irrational attempts to regulate things in a way that will retard the growth of the industry,” he said. Of all the many hardships the Pilgrims had to bear, at least excessive maritime regulation wasn’t one of them.

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